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Will ALEC block EPA coal pollution safeguards at Illinois' controversial Prairie State Energy Campus?

  • Posted on: 26 February 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the Illinois-based Prairie State Energy Campus, a combined coal mine and power plant spearheaded by Peabody Energy, co-owned by eight public power companies based in the Midwest. Numerous cost overruns from construction delays and equipment problems at the Campus resulted in customers in several states having to pay for power well above market price.

While Peabody defends Prairie State Energy Campus (PSEC) from SEC scrutiny, a corporate front group has developed copycat legislation that could exempt dirty projects like PSEC from national clean air and water laws.

A model state bill developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) would block federal pollution regulations when coal is mined and then burned or altered within the borders of a single state. The "Intrastate Coal and Use Act," created within ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force, is ideal for projects like Prairie State Energy Campus, which mines and burns coal on site.

By exempting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from overseeing permits for projects like Prairie State, ALEC's Intrastate Coal and Use Act leaves regulation to state agencies, which may have weaker pollution standards or simply lack enough staff to do their jobs, as the gas fracking boom has demonstrated.  

Peabody itself is a member of ALEC's anti-environmental task force, which readied the Intrastate Coal and Use Act for national distribution, and a member of ALEC's Private Enterprise Board, which may explain ALEC's role in promoting the Prairie State Energy Campus.

Materials leaked to Greenpeace after ALEC's most recent conference in Washington DC show that the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal front backed by companies including Peabody, was showcasing Prairie State at ALEC's conference. Files in a USB drive branded with the ACCCE logo contained three promotional videos for PSEC while a paper folder with the ACCCE logo contained a promotional brochure for the Campus. 

The ALEC model does not appear to have been introduced in Illinois, although ALEC has been busy pushing a wishlist of state laws for its dirty energy members companies like Peabody, Duke Energy and ExxonMobil.

One of ALEC's national priorities this year is to un-legislate state incentives for clean energy under the false premise that they have an adverse impact on electricity rates. While there appears to be no significant correlation between state clean energy standards and raised utility rates, the Prairie State Energy Campus is raising electricity prices, as reported last July in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The St. Louis suburb [Kirkwood] needed a stable, long-term power source. The plant’s developers needed customers. The parties struck a deal — a 30-year contract that would supply more than half of Kirkwood’s electricity beginning in late 2011. The kicker: The energy produced at Prairie State would be cheap compared with market power prices at the time.

But now, as the first of two 800-megawatt generating units at Prairie State begin operations — six months late — the plant hardly seems the bargain it did five years ago.

The $5 billion price tag is 25 percent more than when the city signed on, driving up the price of electricity that Kirkwood and other cities are obligated to buy. And construction delays mean the city is getting nothing for the monthly $296,000 checks it began writing to Prairie State’s owners in February.

Because ALEC peddles copycat laws that benefit dirty and expensive coal projects while attacking clean energy incentives, renewable energy interests like the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association have abandoned ALEC.

History of ALEC's Adoption of the Intrastate Coal and Use Act:

An ALEC legislator in West Virginia named Gary Howell introduced a version of the Intrastate Coal and Use Act back in 2011; his bill inspired the current model bill that ALEC is distributing. Delegate Howell suggested that all of the top 20 coal producing states consider his legislation, indicating where watchdogs should keep their eyes peeled for ALEC's model legislation.

While the bills weren't passed in 2011, West Virginia is again considering the Intrastate Coal and Use Act in the 2013 session, renewing their attempts to keep the EPA from overseeing permits to burn coal from mountain top removal.

Another version of the Intrastate Coal and Use Act has surfaced in Kentucky.

In fact, it was the Kentucky-based Bluegrass Institute that sponsored ALEC's Intrastate Coal and Use Act within ALEC's anti-environmental task force, apparently based off of what WV Del. Howell has been introducing into his own legislature. Like ALEC, the Bluegrass Institute is a member of the State Policy Network, an umbrella organization for state and national think tanks and interest groups that are usually funded by the Koch brothers and company.

Coal's Broken Promises: Not Cheap, Not Clean

A 2005 Peabody company newsletter shows that PSEC was supposed to cost $2 billion, less than half its actual price. The cost estimate was later doubled to $4 billion before reaching its actual $5 billion price tag. According to a 2012 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis:

Instead of being a source of low cost electricity, the first year cost of power from Prairie State is 40 to 100 percent higher than the current cost of power in the Midwest wholesale markets and is expected to remain higher than market prices for the next ten to thirteen years, if not longer.

The Campus proposal was supported by former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for corruption charges), who publicly supported construction of the plant and ate up Peabody's false promises of cheap energy. In Big Coal, author and journalist Jeff Goodell notes that Peabody's desire to build its own coal plant was to help burn its own reserves of high-sulfur coal from Illinois, which the market did not have much of an appetite for. A representative of the Illinois Office of Coal Development told Goodell, "Most power plants are built in order to generate electricity. Prairie State was really conceived more as a platform to burn Peabody coal." While Peabody sold all but 5% of its stake in PSEC to eight nonprofit power companies, it has been the driving force behind the Campus since 2001.

Goodell noted that even with its highly-touted pollution control equipment, PSEC is still a dirty coal plant. It still emits hazardous particulates, acidic gasses and heavy metals. It still dumps immense amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, the key greenhouse gas that is contributing to global climate change:

"Prairie State will emit more than 11 million tons [of carbon dioxide] a year, marginally less than a similar size coal plant built thirty years ago, but more than twice as much as every vehicle sold by the Ford Motor Company in a single year."

Illinois' bind demonstrates the lose-lose situation promoted by the coal industry: drink and breathe our pollution now, and pay more...now and later.

As clean energy becomes increasingly viable, even without considering the costs of fossil fuel pollution and climate change, some cities are taking matters into their own hands, including [the ironically-named] Carbondale Illinois, which recently established that 100% of its power will come from clean energy. Cincinnati, Ohio dumped Duke Energy and made a similar commitment, as have all municipal facilities in Austin, Texas.

But clean energy advocates be warned: the more the American public recognizes that 19th Century energy like coal is a thing of the past, the more the dirty energy industries are going to spend big to desperately defend their bottom lines.

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Wind Group Dumps ALEC, Duke Energy Continues Contradicting Itself with ALEC Membership

  • Posted on: 30 January 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

Image: Checks & Balances Project - ALEC Attacks Clean Energy Standards: Ohio & Virginia

An article in Greenwire today revealed a few interesting things about the American Legislative Exchange Council's attacks on state clean energy laws through its "Electricity Freedom Act."

First, ALEC was recently abandoned by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) due to ALEC's efforts to repeal state renewable portfolio standards--laws that ensure a growing percentage of electricity comes from clean energy. AWEA joins over 45 companies and organizations that have dropped ALEC due to its support for voter legislation, Stand Your Ground and other NRA gun laws, climate science denial, racial profiling laws, and other measures against the public interest.

Not only did AWEA leave ALEC, but they're warning other ALEC affiliates about their steadfast opposition to clean energy (which ALEC denies--see below):

Now, AWEA is warning state lawmakers not to be taken in by ALEC's message, one that [Peter] Kelley said is driven by fossil fuel companies. He pointed out that conservative think tank and climate skeptic Heartland Institute told The Washington Post last year that it had joined ALEC to write language to revise state renewable energy mandates in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

"We want to warn our former fellow members of ALEC about that misinformation because we won't be around to protect them," he said.

Greenwire notes contradictory statements from coal polluter Duke Energy, which betrayed its own past support for North Carolina's clean energy standard, the law that ALEC's Rep. Mike Hager is targeting:

Duke Energy, a member of ALEC and large player in North Carolina, is trying to sidestep the debate.

Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni said the utility hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, and the decision to implement or repeal renewable portfolio standards should be "state specific."

"Though we're a member of ALEC, we don't always agree with every issue that the organization or any other organization of which we're a member takes," he said, adding that Duke is a member of a wide array of liberal and conservative groups.

But a spokesman for Duke told the Charlotte Business Journal last May that the utility indeed opposes Hager's bill and helped craft North Carolina's RPS. Duke also opposes ALEC's position to curb U.S. EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions and coal ash storage and set standards for mercury emissions, the spokesman said.

But wait! Not only does Duke Energy still pay ALEC, but Duke is member to the "Electric Reliability Coordinating Council," A.K.A. coal lobbyists from Bracewell & Giuliani paid by Duke and others to block EPA rules on mercury pollution from power plants. Duke and Progress Energy ranked 12th and 22nd respectively of the top 25 mercury polluters in 2011 before they merged last year.

Meanwhile, Duke Energy lobbyists like Bill Tyndall have worked on blocking effective controls for coal ash, which contains neurotoxins, carcinogens and radioactive elements. Duke has a coal ash pollution monopoly in North Carolina, with tests confirming they are contaminating groundwater near their storage sites. Duke's opposition to coal ash regulations is also inherent in their membership with yet another front group, the American Coal Ash Association.

So maybe Duke Energy doesn't support ALEC's opposition to reducing mercury and coal ash pollution, they just support other groups willing to do those things for them.

Finally, ALEC's Todd Wynn is either dishonest or has a short memory.

In the Greenwire article, Todd Wynn was trying to make the point that ALEC legislators, not the corporate interests funding ALEC and driving its agenda, are taking the reins on repealing renewable energy. Greenwire quotes Wynn, emphasis added:

"Members are driving the debate. ... Our state legislators have taken up the torch on these issues," he said. "But ALEC itself isn't driving an energy mandate repeal campaign."

To that point, Todd Wynn fully contradicts himself--check out his own blog on the clean energy attacks, titled "ALEC to States: Repeal Renewable Energy Mandates." 

It's also ridiculous for Wynn to assert that ALEC legislators have "taken up the torch" on repealing clean energy laws--ALEC's model was written by climate science deniers at the Heartland Institute, not state legislators.

Mr. Wynn's job is to keep this debate centered around debunked economic arguments that obscure the ideological corporate agenda he is paid to advance. As an operative of the Koch-funded State Policy Network, an aversion to reality is a necessary component of his resume. Wynn previously worked for a SPN member group called the Cascades Policy Institute promoting climate science denial.

Todd Wynn says that ALEC isn't against clean energy, just against government favoring one energy industry over another. Yet ALEC has done nothing to repeal subsidies to the oil and coal industries, or loan guarantees to the nuclear industry, or any other comparable measure to their attacks on clean energy. That's because ALEC's anti-environmental legislation is supported and even written by ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Duke Energy, and other major polluters.

No wonder groups like AWEA and the Solar Energy Industries Association abandoned ALEC shortly after joining. ALEC's polluter agenda is already set, backed by dirty money, and not open for discussion.

The full article can be found in Greenwire, E&E Publishing: Wind, solar groups quit ALEC as conservative powerhouse targets clean-power programs 

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